The Future Looks Very Bright at #ChorleyHack

We have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) skills problem in the UK. Estimates vary on the impact, but it’s significant:

UK STEM businesses have warned of a growing skills shortage as they struggle to recruit qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.
According to new findings from STEM Learning, the largest provider of STEM education and careers support in the UK, the shortage is costing businesses £1.5 billion a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs.
The STEM Skills Indicator1 reveals that nine in 10 (89%) STEM businesses have found it difficult to hire staff with the required skills in the last 12 months, leading to a current shortfall of over 173,000 workers – an average of 10 unfilled roles per business.

Skills shortage costing STEM sector £1.5bn

This shortfall is particularly acute for women entering STEM careers where less than 20% of the workforce are women.

The number of graduates is a result of many years of education and the earlier that we can get young people interested in STEM the better that the results will be. We can’t expect schools to be the sole instigators of that change either, as an industry we need to step up and help to provide life change STEM opportunities to children and young people. That’s one of the reasons why I was delighted to be a mentor as #ChorleyHack which was organised by the town council in the area where my office is.

What a fabulous day with 25 teams of four children from 14 local schools coming together in the local town hall to spend a day coding together. The task was “create a game or animation that educates other young people about cyber bullying, online safety and social media safety.”

The levels of preparation and enthusiasm were an inspiration, the room was buzzing. The children and young people were so focused on the task that many of them returned early from their lunch to get their code as far along as possible, even though the task was not to get their code finished. The sophistication of their work was amazing with a significant depth of understanding of the challenge subject area. As mentors the conversations where inspiring, I particularly enjoyed an extended chat with one of the children who was very excited to explain to me how Scratch worked and about another project he was writing in Python.

Observe anything about the make up of the winning teams from the tweets below:

That’s right, a significant proportion of girls, something that was evident across the day, no 20% here. #ChorleyHack was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that girls can indeed code and another nail in the coffin of the lie that IT is just for boys.

Thanks go to each of the teams leaders, mostly teachers, who had clearly invested a huge amount of time in getting the children and young people prepared for the event.

A particular thanks goes to Simon Charnock, Digital Transformation Officer, Chorley Council who did a fabulous job of facilitating the whole event.

If we can see this level of enthusiasm and passion continuing through the education system then we should be looking forward to a very bright future.

How long do we need to keep transposing for?

I’m currently sat in one of those cafes that are now ubiquitous across the UK – the burgundy one, not the green one.

Next to me the conversation is of exam results and their meaning.

In England we have had a transition, in recent years, from a system in which the classification was given in letters to one that is given in numbers.

The letter system went from A* to G with A* being the best and F the poorest, a C and above being regarded as a pass.

The new numbers system goes from 9 to 1 with 1 being a low score and 9 being the best score. A 4 is now a Standard Pass and 5 is a Strong Pass.

This is where the conversation comes in, because the teenager on the table says: “Well I don’t need to worry about passing because I already have a 4 even before I’ve sat my exams.”

The adults accompanying him both look at each other puzzled: “What’s a 4?”

I’m pretty sure that one of these adults is the teenagers parent, and yet they are still confused by a system that has been being rolled out for a couple of years.

And so commenced the transpose from one system to another.

“So is a 4 like a C?”

“Sort of, it’s a pass.”

“What grade are you aiming for?”

“I’m hoping for an 8 or 9?”

“But you’ve already got a 4?”

“An 8 is better than a 4”

“So is an 8 like an A and a 9 like an A*”

“Sort of”

This is the point at which the teenager gives in and chooses to keep it simple for the parent, who’s clearly still confused. The reality is that there is no direct correlation – see the chart in this link for more information.

The adults’ frame of reference is one scale, the teenager’s is a different scale. The only way the adults can understand is by transposing, the teenager can’t transpose because they only know the new system.

We do all sorts of transposing in life, to get from one frame of reference to another. Somewhere along the line we sometime switch from one to another and sometimes we don’t. And so I wonder, how long does it take for us to switch? What are the reasons for us sticking with an old, out of date frame of reference? What are the things that help us switch to a new one?

Top 10 Posts for 2018

I normally round out each year with a post that summarises the most visited content for the year. This year a completely forgot about it until today, so here it is:

  1. Office Speak: “Sharpen Your Pencil”
  2. Add a Third Time-Zone to your Outlook Calendar
  3. The British, the Queue and the Tut
  4. Office Speak: Greenfielding
  5. Office Speak: “Can you please go on mute” – “PLEASE GO ON MUTE”
  6. Office Speak: One Throat to Choke
  7. Productive Workplace: Design Mindset Spaces
  8. Count Your Blessings #120 – Short Stories
  9. “If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe…
  10. The Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS)

As with previous years, the most popular posts are primarily historic with a continued growth in Office Speak. The exception to this is #2 on adding a third time-zone to Outlook calendars.

Header Image: Today’s header image is of Angle Tarn taken on a recent walk up and over Bowfell which is somewhere, not visible behind the clouds.

I’m Reading… “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H. Pink

Why do you do what you do, when you do it? That is the fundamental question threaded throughout this book. The reality is, for many of us, we have unconsciously walked into a When of life that has little to do with productivity, performance or even well-being.

When - Daniel H. PinkWe have a tendency to treat all of our awake time as equal, we schedule our days around the priority of an activity and little else. We sit in afternoon meetings conscious of things going a bit slow, but choose to power through. We visit our doctor and expect the best performance from them whenever we go. We remember sitting in afternoon exams wondering why it was so hard. Yet, we all know instinctively that we have certain times of the day where different things are more enjoyable, and times when we are better at doing certain things.

In When, Daniel H. Pink, gives a framework for understanding ourselves, and those around us. As with many human conditions we all sit somewhere on a spectrum and not rigidly into any neatly defined box, but having the boxes helps us to understand ourselves and others. In When the boxes are:

Lark Third Bird Owl
Analytic Tasks Early morning Early to mid-morning Late afternoon and evening
Insight Tasks Late afternoon/early evening Late afternoon/early evening Morning
Making an Impression Morning Morning Morning (sorry owls)
Making an Decision Early morning Early to mid-morning Late afternoon and evening)

Most of us are third-birds – we’re neither extremely larkish or blatantly owly.

If you look through this table you may notice that the mid-afternoon isn’t a great time for anyone or anything and that’s because it isn’t. That post-lunch slump affects most of us and isn’t a great time to progress anything, which is why it’s the ideal time to take a break. Some cultures have breaks built-in with extended lunches and early afternoon naps. This was perhaps the case in the UK some years ago, but it’s certainly isn’t now. Most people have their lunch at their desk while covering their keyboard with crumbs. That, it turns out, is a massive mistake, we would be far more productive if we took a proper break and had a nap.

When is full of advice on how to take good breaks: micro-breaks, moving-breaks, nature breaks, social breaks, even mental gear-shift breaks. Pink’s exhortation is for us to get serious about breaks, to schedule them in and to stick to the schedule.

The mid-point slump, doesn’t just apply to our daily routines though, the same pattern applies to most things – we start and finish with enthusiasm, but struggle in the middle. Pink devotes a number of sections to this phenomenon and in his usual style mixes scientific research with concise practical advice for handling these situations whether that’s a mid-point in a career, in a project or even in a relationship.

I’m not going to cover all of the sections in When here, because there is a lot that I liked about this book and much to apply and the post would be too long if I did. The one remaining section I will touch on though, is the one on synchronising. Getting together with others and performing a task has a powerful impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Having sung in groups most of my life I recognise the power of it in that situation, but I’m predominantly an introvert and wouldn’t go out of my way to join synchronisation opportunities, that’s a challenge. I think that my first step on that one is to join a yoga class, I currently use an app on my iPhone to do my practice, but I recognise that this is robbing me of the synchronisation high that comes from being in a group.

There are certain books that you read and wish that you had read them earlier, this is one of those books. Although, as I reflect upon it, as someone who in many ways is in the middle of things, perhaps it’s best that I read it now, when I need it.

Stop the Self-Inflicted Pain | Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let others do it to us?

Do two posts make a series? Anyway, this is second post looking at some modern-day frustrations where we look inside things that we do that are daft and dangerous. Some of them you may not realise are doing you damage, others probably already drive you a bit loopy. Part 1 is here: Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

We have three more topics for today:

Devices in Meetings

What is the purpose of a meeting? Do you know? In almost every case, the addition of screens into that meeting is harming that purpose.

Most meetings that I attend, if I attend in person, are based around a large table. The table is littered with laptops, phones and tablets. People join the meeting with every intention of contributing wholeheartedly to it, but within minutes they are distracted. They don’t mean to be, but they are powerless to stay away from the distracting movements that are occurring before them.

“But” I can hear you say…

“But, what if I want to take notes electronically?” If you are far more disciplined than me, then perhaps you can have a powerful, internet connected, multi-skilled device there in-front of you and only use it to take notes. If that is you, then I take my hat off to you, but it’s still not as good for you as writing notes.

“But, what if I need the material off my laptop to inform the meeting?” That may be a perfectly valid point, but it should be limited and clearly understood in the objectives for the meeting, often it’s an excuse.

“But, what happens if someone needs to contact me?” This is the ultimate expression of the problem. If you take a device into a meeting because you think that someone may need to contact you, then you will be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting distracted by the potential that someone is going to contact you. “Has my phone run yet?” “What’s was that email that has just come in?”

Multi-tasking

One of the main reasons that devices in meetings is such a bad idea is that it draws us into multitasking and we are very poor at multitasking.

There are numerous experiments that show our inability to task switch, but perhaps we need the kids to show us how it is (not) done:

There’s also growing evidence that the impact of persistent multitasking is lasting harm. You’re less effective while you are multitasking, but you are also permanently numbing down your brain.

Aside from the impact on our brains there are situations where multitasking is downright dangerous. Those of you who still think you can text and drive are kidding yourself:

It has become normal many of us to multi-screen in front of the TV every night. Even if we are only using our tablet or phone while the adverts are on, we are still expecting our brains to multitask. Those advert may be annoying, but rather than picking up a screen we would be much better standing up and having a stretch.

This isn’t a new subject for me, but we still have a very long way to go before people listen.

Open Plan Offices

Once the darling of every office manager the open plan office is a disaster for productivity.

You don’t need to look any further for evidence of this than this invention from Panasonic:

wearspace_rolling

These are a pair of blinkers for the office, for those times when you need some peace and quiet to get your job done! Seriously!

Again, I hear that “but” word entering into your head. The primary “but” for open plan offices is: “But, doesn’t it improve communication between teams and enable more creative interactions?” Let me put it as simply as I can: “No.”

Open plan offices drive down interactions:

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Most people spend their time in an open plan office with headphones plugged in which makes it difficult to know whether they are one a phone call so it’s normal to instant message them, even if they are on the next desk.

How many more things?

That’s eight different areas that we’ve covered in two posts, I wonder how many more there are? Imagine if each one improves your productivity, or wellness, by just 2% we would have improved our lives by at least 16%!

How weatherproof are your headphones?

On the 28th August 2018 I went out for a walk in the mountains of the Lake District. It was a glorious day of contemplation and enlightenment, and quite a lot of water.

When I returned home I was unpacking my somewhat wet equipment and getting out of damp clothes when I noticed that my Anker Bluetooth Headphones were missing. I’d definitely had them on my walk because I’d listened to part of an audio-book on them. How frustrating.

I like these headphones because they are light, have good battery life and are supposed to be waterproof which I’d tested a bit and it seemed to be the case, but I’d not gone swimming in them or anything like that.

But now they were lost.

I searched the various nooks and crannies of the car, I searched the many pockets of my rucksack, but no headphones. I even checked the many pockets of my walking trousers and waterproof coat, several times!

A eventually came to the conclusion that they must have fallen out of a pocket, or the car, probably in the car park near Thirlmere.

Today on the 29th September – a month later – and just to show how often I do gardening, I found the headphones. They were about a metre from where I get out of my car, laid on some plumb colour slate. They weren’t wholly disguised, not were they very visible, I’d obviously not looked there. But, I did need to look there whilst I was weeding.

In the last month we have had rain and wind in the form of storms Ali and Bronagh, as well as the usual English September showers, we’ve even had sunshine and our first mild ground frost.

Would these waterproof headphone survive a month laid on the ground outside my house? I’m please to say, absolutely! One of the ears is a little quieter than the other at the moment, but I suspect that may ease as they get dried out a bit. How’s that for resilience?

If anything, the biggest impact has been from the sun and bleaching, some of the black isn’t quite as black as I remember it, but they work, and that’s what counts.

Anyway, I’m off now to enjoy another audio-book with my headphones on. Hopefully I won’t loose them this time 😀.

Concept of the Day: The Law of the Instrument – “To the man with a hammer…”

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Abraham Maslow

More commonly expressed as:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

(I’ve not attributed the common version to anyone because that appears to be up for debate)

The Law of the Instrument is another of those cognitive biases, which appear to be fruitful ideas for these Concept of the Day posts. I think that the reason I find biases so fascinating is that they reveal things about the way we think and provide explanations for why we behave in certain ways and certain situations. The Law of Instrument highlights our tendency to place an over-reliance upon a familiar tool. I suspect that each of us has at least one example of situations we’ve encountered where this has been the case.

I used to have a colleague who would write documents in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets – which his Personal Assistant would then retype into a Microsoft Word document. He knew how to use a spreadsheet, so that’s what he used.

In a similar vein, many organisations send out corporate communications as Microsoft Word documents because that is what the corporate communications team are comfortable creating them in. This annoys everyone, especially the people on mobile devices.

We’ve covered Excel and Word, so I didn’t want to leave PowerPoint out :-). Not sure I need to give an example here though. we have the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” for a reason.

Most of the features of most applications are rarely used, because people don’t go looking for more effective ways of doing things. Once you’ve worked out how to create a table it’s likely that you’ll always create a table that way. I’ve seen several methods employed by applications to nudge us away from our ingrained behaviours, but we keep coming back to the hammer that we already have available to us.

Organisations are dependent upon the data analysis that people do in Microsoft Excel because that’s the tool they are familiar with, when far better tools exist.

The language used by many coding projects is defined by what the chosen developer knows. There’s rarely much discussion about finding the right language, and hence the right developer, for the project.

There’s a current trend to move people to Agile project management methods. In many cases organisations are moving from having one methodology for project management, which was only appropriate to some types of project, to another project management methodology which is only appropriate for a different set of projects. The thought of running two different project management methodologies is regarded as heresy. Agile has become the one-size-fits-all answer to project management.

The Abraham Maslow in the original quote is the same one who produced the Hierarchy of Needs. What better example of The Law of the Instrument could you wish for? The Hierarchy of Needs has, for many, become the universal tool for explaining people’s behaviour. Whilst The Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool, it’s very unlikely that there is a universal tool for explaining all of human behaviour.

Like all biases, the first step in overcoming it is to recognise that it exists. What we all need in our lives is someone who is regulalrly asking us “why did you do it like that?” Our answer to that question will be a good guide to thye impact of The Law of Instrument in our lives. Another good question to ask is “is there a different way of doing this?” It’s unlikely there isn’t an alternative but if you can’t think of one then you need to challenge your bias.

Cognitive Bias Posts: